Washington D.C. Capitol riot 1/6/21 (Photo: Alex Kent via Tennessee Lookout)
Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) is making a name for herself. Out of the 99 members of the state Assembly, few representatives are recognizable to the general public. But as the chair of the Assembly elections committee who successfully pushed to launch a massive “Arizona-style audit,” Brandtjen’s office confirms that her emails, phone calls and media requests have skyrocketed — particularly from outside her suburban Milwaukee district.
Brandtjen also managed to do something rarely seen in the Assembly Republican caucus — she realigned Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ position, pushing him around to her vision, which he had repeatedly opposed. (Of course, she got a little bit of help, and kudos, from former President Donald Trump.)
In fact, on Friday, supporters of Brandtjen’s audit packed into Vos’ office, later visiting Senate GOP leaders, demanding they sign her subpoenas to seize Wisconsin voting machines.
Given her notoriety and requests for her presence at rallies and protests — including events where Vos has been ridiculed with calls of “Toss the Vos” — has her stance supporting the discredited theory that there was massive election fraud affected her standing among donors?
It is hard to assess whether her false claim that Trump won the election has helped or hindered her future ability to campaign. Brandtjen asserts that there was massive fraud and even requested that former Vice President Mike Pence refuse to certify the election. All of that happened after she was re-elected in November 2020. Furthermore, she ran unopposed in both the primary and general election for her seat last year.
But politicians may not see as much fallout from corporate donors as it initially appeared when legislators in Wisconsin and elsewhere tried to put a halt to the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
“Right around Jan. 6 there were a slew of different corporations that said right away that they would refrain from spending on or supporting the individuals in Congress who objected to Biden’s certification,” says Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law and a Brennan Center fellow specializing in campaign finance and political branding.
Six months later, in July, much of the initial horror over the Capitol insurrection had quieted while Trumpism was resurging and groundless allegations of election fraud were repeated by Republicans to justify passing laws that make it harder to vote.
“At that point a lot of the very same corporations who made all these promises had basically gone back on their word,” says Torres-Spelliscy. “They were supporting members of Congress who had objected to the certification of the 2020 election. Some of that was literally direct spending, but most of it was indirect spending,” such as donations to a leadership PAC supporting an entire party delegation. She labels that “one of the more disingenuous ways that corporations have continued some of their support.”
Support for election conspiracy-espousing politicians has continued with seemingly little consequence thus far in part because months before the election, Trump and Republican leaders were beginning to sow doubt about the validity of the election with predictions of fraud. Torres-Spelliscy contrasts that to courts and judges all across the country who have had no problem determining that Biden won the election and charging individuals involved in the Jan. 6 riot for trespassing and more violent actions.
The court of public opinion, however, has been kinder to the Capitol rioters and their backers in the months after the insurrection.
“I think there has been this very effective use of political branding to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election,” Torres-Spelliscy says. “So once you get down to the quotidian Republican voter, lots of them have been duped into thinking that there was something wrong with the 2020 election when there was not.”
Leading Wisconsin’s so-called audit
The watchdog group Accountable.US looked into the corporate and interest group donors that gave to past campaigns of political officials “that continue to push election audits and peddle baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, including those connected to extremist groups and with histories of anti-vaccine rhetoric.” In Wisconsin, the group focused its report on Brandtjen and two others who toured the Maricopa audit site with her, and also have taken stances against vaccines: Reps. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) and Dave Murphy (R-Greenville).
Brandtjen’s top donor over her four elections was the Wisconsin Realtors Association, according to FollowtheMoney.org. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign shows that businesses run by her top individual donors include Barthenheier Construction and the Russ Darrow Group.
Brandtjen’s district is solidly Republican, however, so her fundraising is generally lower than amounts raised in more competitive districts.
The top 10 PACs (political action committees) and trade groups that donated to Brandtjen according to Accountable.US were: Wisconsin Realtors Association $3,500), Milwaukee Police Association ($1,750), Walmart ($1,500), American Federation for Children ($1,500), Rebecca PAC ($1,000), Wisconsin Institute of CPAs ($700), Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin $600), Forest County Potawatomi ($500), Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance ($500) and Tavern League of Wisconsin ($500).
While other donors refused to answer questions on future support, the Wisconsin Realtors have a straightforward answer on whether it would stop supporting Brandtjen, or any other legislator pushing for the Trump-driven audit.
“The very simple and concise answer to your question is no, it will have no influence,” says Joe Murray, Wisconsin Realtors Association’s director of political affairs. “We’re real estate related and we’re going to stick in that wheelhouse. … She will continue to get our support as long as she continues to be very pro-housing, pro-real estate and pro-business. And she is.”
Murray says his group’s top issue right now is growing the housing supply — particularly for middle-income families, in what is often referred to as “workforce housing.” The only impact of the currently divisive political climate is to adhere strictly to such a focus.
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“Especially in today’s environment [getting involved in election disputes] is especially an unwise thing to do because it’s just not what our concerns are.” Murray says.
Accountable.US, the Washington, D.C.-based group that compiled the report, is calling on corporations such as Walmart — which backed Brandtjen and Murphy, to publicly condemn misleading, anti-democratic rhetoric.
“These fringe representatives are willing to undermine our democracy just to score political points with the twice-impeached former president by keeping his Big Lie alive,” Accountable.US president Kyle Herrig says.
“They would rather fan the flames of insurrection by spreading unhinged conspiracy theories than accept the will of the people. It is clear that no amount of evidence that the election was fair will satisfy those who are acting in bad faith. The question is: why haven’t the corporations that have supported these anti-democratic representatives in the past condemned their rhetoric?”
Halting political giving
One month after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the New York Times looked into whether the event — and conspiracy theories about the election — had affected corporate giving to politicians, particularly those tied to the insurrection:
“The most immediate change since the riot is that hundreds of big companies halted their donations to the lawmakers who objected to the vote certification, the motivating event for the mob in Washington. Many companies paused political giving altogether,” the Times reported.
Direct, trackable donations are only one avenue for corporate giving and many could still be backing such candidates through other channels. And while some groups have stepped away from backing candidates involved in extreme activities that undermine democracy, others have been willing to continue, as Wisconsin’s Diane Hendricks and the Uihleins have done.
“This crazy propaganda about our elections and endless fishing expeditions they’re on, I think will hurt people who are peddling this garbage on the one hand,” asserts Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “But on the other hand, I think they are calculating that there’s plenty of money out there from far-rightwing, super-rich sources that they’re going to go after and solicit. And that would compensate for any loss they have from more moderate folks.”
“Trump fever” diminished immediately after Jan. 6 as the public witnessed shocking pictures of the Capitol being breached and looted, and some political scientists suggested that extremism had been sidelined. But the fervor came back quickly, funneled into Cyber Ninja-mimicking audits in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. “I don’t know if companies are going to act where they said they were going to act,” Rothschild says. “I hope there is pressure on them to behave responsibly.”
Wisconsin has seen corporate boycotts. During the massive public protests over then-Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting Act 10, many progressives stayed away from buying Johnsonville Brats and Sargento cheese because those companies continued to back Walker. More recently Liz and Dick Uihlein’s support of Trump steered some people away from their company, Uline, which makes packaging and supply products.
It could be that consumers will divide brands along political fault lines.
Years ago, when campaign finance regulations authored by former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain were tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court, Feingold predicted that society could become so politically polarized that there would be a Republican toothpaste and a Democratic toothpaste.
He may not be far off the mark. After MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell became a vocal Trump fan, using his large microphone to make increasingly wild and false assertions about fraud, Parkland shooting survivor and gun-control advocate David Hogg started up Good Pillow, a progressive company to compete against MyPillow.
“Maybe corporations think that by funding people peddling the conspiracy, they’ll get the consumers who believe in that conspiracy,” says Rothschild. “And that’s how polarized our society is right now.”
The more serious consequence of fake audits — or “fraudits” as they are now being labeled by opponents and some media, is their long-term impact on democracy, says Torres-Spelliscy. She calls Maricopa County’s widely disparaged ballot review “a recipe for disaster.”
But she believes there is a potential backlash brewing against the elected officials pushing “fraudits” that could hurt corporate donors to politicians who perpetrate what Democrats are calling “The Big Lie” that Trump won the election.
“I think the more that a corporation is associated with a thing that is a fake audit,” says Torres-Spelliscy, “that’s going to undermine the public’s faith in democracy, and the more that that company risks a backlash, either from their customers, or even from their shareholders.”
Taking a political stand of any kind can be dangerous for companies that want to maintain broad consumer appeal.
She points to Coke and other “public-facing” companies that were rebuked during the debate over election laws in Georgia, as being particularly vulnerable to public outcry because people can make a simple choice not to drink their product. The anti-voter and anti-abortion actions in Texas are also putting political heat on groups doing business in that state.
“If you’re a corporation that funded the politicians that made these awful, awful laws you are risking a backlash, either from the people who buy your products or your investors,” Torres-Spelliscy says. “And we’ll see whether corporations take more of a public stance on democracy itself.”
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